Monday, January 10, 2011

#85. Primal Religion

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In this post I want to share some thoughts about what Thomas Berry calls the "new mode of religious understanding" given to us by contemporary science.

My previous post was about how both Western religion and science had alienated us from the world we live in and out of which we have emerged, and that today we have a different picture. We're no longer "Doubly Estranged," as I called post #84. Today, we know that "evolution is our sacred story."

And this scientific understanding-- of ourselves and of the world together-- provides us in with a better than ever perspective on the spiritual aspects of human nature. Especially important is the idea that this "new mode of religious understanding" doesn't negate our previous understanding. It deepens and enhances it.

Today we know that religion is in our genes. That's what the title of this post refers to: "Primal Religion." If it didn't sound so strange, I'd call it "Genetic Religion."


In any case, to be clear about it, we need to take into account two important facts. One is that, in Berry's words, "the cosmic process has a human dimension from the start." The other is that human consciousness first appeared on Earth during the Cenozoic era. That's the last 65 million years of the Earth's history-- which Berry calls "the great lyric period in the Earth's development" because it's when flowers, birds and butterflies, among many other living things, first appeared.

These two ideas are the context for our "new mode of religious understanding."

It's the fact that the evolutionary universe has a human dimension from the start that accounts for "our unique spiritual aspects." Note that Berry emphasizes that it's science, not religion, which has established that we are the result of the cosmic process and that we humans are its conscious expression.

It is this point about which Berry himself says, "we can hardly believe it." It seems so unbelievable precisely because we have been "doubly estranged" from the physical cosmos by many centuries of religious dualism and scientific materialism.

The second big idea for our "new mode of religious understanding" is that humanity first emerged during the Cenozoic era. The "Earth's great lyric period" is the sacred world of our origins. We are "genetically coded" to it-- attuned to it in terms of our outer and inner realities. And as Berry says, because "our genes are integral with the Cenozoic, so is our soul life."

Traditional religion knew almost nothing about genetics; it's from science that we know that our primal religious instincts are "in our genes."

These two ideas-- that the cosmic process has a human dimension from the start and that human consciousness first appeared on Earth during the Cenozoic era-- are the context for our new mode of religious understanding. Together, they provide a new way to understand the basic religious-spiritual orientation we find in our minds and hearts.


I noted in post #84 that Berry stresses that this new cosmology-- the story of our place in the universe-- is being told to us by the universe itself. "Modern science," he says, "gives us the story of who we are, how we came to be, and what our lives are all about."

And so in our day, "we are recovering reverence," says Berry. We are learning again to appreciate and trust the Earth; we're learning that we need to listen to the voices of the Earth. Without those voices of the Earth-- "the stars at night, songs of birds at dawn, the smell of honeysuckle on a summer evening"-- our souls shrivel.

Berry describes it quite explicitly: "Our inner world cannot be activated without these outer experiences of wonder for the mind, beauty for the imagination, and intimacy for the emotions." These, he says, are experiences of "that numinous reality whence the universe came into being and by which it is sustained in its immense journey."

Wonder, beauty and intimacy allow us see "that the universe is a vast celebration"-- which, as Berry emphasizes, it is our role to enter into in our specifically human way -- and that "this is the purpose of all existence."


This profound perspective makes the New Science Story an authentic cosmology in the anthropological as well as in the physical-astronomical sense. I know from my many years as a teacher, however, that the term Berry uses with regard to wonder, beauty and intimacy-- "numinous"-- is neither familiar to many nor easily explainable.

It's not that numinous experiences are rare; studies indicate that they are common. But to the extent that our culture remains stuck at the bottom rung of the Great Ladder, many people-- mistakenly thinking that science still claims "there's only matter"-- are embarrassed or bewildered by such experiences and do their best to suppress them.

"The numinous" is not easy to talk about, but because it's the basis for our "new mode of religious understanding," my strong teacher-instincts make me want to give it a try.

There are two basic concepts involved here. One is easy enough to understand: that just about anything-- any person, place, thing, happening-- can be the occasion for a numinous experience.

The second, much less easy to understand, is that the experience is a combination of two opposite feelings. That's what makes it so difficult to express in words; our logical Thinking function is simply of no help when it comes to numinous experience.

The two opposite feelings which constitute a numinous experience were originally described by the early 20th-century German scholar Rudolf Otto. If his name is unfamiliar, you might like to read the Wikipedia article about him. The English title of his famous book is The Idea of the Holy. Today, he would more likely have called it "The Idea of the Numinous" or "The Idea of the Sacred."

That Wikipedia entry notes that, since Rudolph Otto's time, references to numinous experience have appeared in the work of numerous intellectuals in many fields-- from the fiction of C. S. Lewis and the psychology of Carl Jung to the religious studies of Mircea Eliade.

Even the writings of the cosmologist Carl Sagan and a number of contemporary spokesmen for atheism such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris contain positive references to numinous experience.

While we may not have been explicitly conscious of it in a conceptual sense before the 20th century, the numinous is obviously an important part of human experience.


Rudolph Otto uses Latin words to describe it: the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Tremendum means fearful or awesome: something that evokes fear and trembling-- something from which we want to keep our distance.
Fascinans means just the opposite; it refers to what we find attractive, compelling, wonder-full-- something that keeps grabbing our attention and calling us back to itself.

Beside being tremendum and fascinans, the numinous is also experienced as mysterium. It is especially important to note that the numinous has a personal quality to it. When we are experiencing it, we feel that we are somehow related to it-- that we are in communion with it.

You can see why this is so difficult to put into words. But doesn't it sound familiar?

Feeling both attracted and repelled by something we're part of is not an uncommon experience-- even if we don't, or can't, talk much about it.

Rudolph Otto's point is that it's the basis for all religious experience. 

And Berry's point is that "our souls shrivel" without it. Our inner world, our "soul-life" as he calls it, simply cannot be activated without these experiences of "wonder for the mind, beauty for the imagination, and intimacy for the emotions." This is why we need to listen to the voices of the Earth.

I quoted Berry's words about listening to the voices of the Earth in the previous post. I think they are worth presenting again here in this context:

"We need to listen to the stars, the sun and moon, the mountains and plains, the forests and rivers and seas, the meadows and the flowering grasses, the songbirds and insects that sing in the evenings. We need to experience, to feel, to see this celebration of life. They are dimensions of the human soul, revelations of the divine being communicated to us, and inspiration for our spiritual life."


To put the main idea of this post as simply as possible: whether we call it the experience of the holy or the sacred or the divine or the numinous, this kind of experience is what religion has been all about since human awareness first emerged on Earth. It was the religion of our earliest human ancestors.

More poetically, this kind of experience-- of "the stars at night, the songs of birds at dawn, the smell of honeysuckle on a summer evening"-- is the primal religion that's "in our genes."

Berry says early humans, and to a great extent indigenous peoples still today, are attuned to the natural world and the numinous nature of the cosmos spontaneously. "Mountains were spiritual modes of being. Sunrise and sunset were sacred moments. Animals were spirit presences."

And it's from this experience, he adds, "that religious ritual, prayer, poetry and music were born."


I think we need one more idea to have a good overall view of primal religion. Even when we can see clearly that this kind of religious experience is in our genes, there's another question that some of us can't resist asking: How did it get there in the first place?

Why did the biological process of natural selection select for numinous experience? What was it about these primal experiences of the sacred that promoted the survival and thrival of our earliest human ancestors?

Berry offers some deep and especially helpful thoughts along these lines in a 1987 essay entitled "Spiritual Traditions and the Human Community."

In antiquity, he says, all human activity was done in alliance with "the human, spiritual and natural" together. He's says that humans have been shaped by natural selection to deal with our existence in the natural world in union with the divine.

Using the Greek terms-- anthropos, theos and cosmos-- which I have used in many previous posts for trying to express these ideas without the emotional connotations words like "world" and "God" have, I would say it this way: that anthropos is shaped by natural selection to deal with our existence in the cosmos in union with theos.

And then, using Raimundo Panikkar's phase which I've used in several recent posts, I would say that it's clear, then, that we are genetically oriented to living in the cosmo-the-andric unity. Our very existence is defined by the union of cosmos, anthropos and theos.

Berry says we evolved this way because we are "too fragile" to handle the terror of our existence by ourselves. He says that without a sense of our union with theos, we are annihilated by cosmos-- it's just too harsh in itself, too overwhelming.

And it is our sense of the cosmo-the-andric unity that lets us see that while reality is indeed terrifying, it also has a positive, good side. It is "beneficent," Berry says, and notes that we experience this benign providence "as ready to align with humanity." It "assures us of an inner tranquility in the larger pattern" of the cosmic process.

We can trust it in the long run.


Such profound thoughts! We need to remind ourselves again where our primal religious experience comes from: "Seeing the stars at night, hearing the birds at dawn, smelling honeysuckle on a summer evening."

Fifty years ago, an Eastern Orthodox Christian writer, Jon Gregerson, put his description of numinous experience in a wonderfully simple and explicit way. He said, "We can see and hear and taste and smell God."

It is that experience-- of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans-- which empowers us, via the coming together of cosmos, anthropos and theos, not just to survive but to thrive in this world.

And it's that experience-- the recovery of our primal (genetic, Cenozoic) spirituality-- which is the essence of the "new mode of religious understanding" that's ours now, thanks to contemporary science.

These are, indeed, profound thoughts!


As in the previous post, most of my quotes from Thomas Berry in this post are taken from a small collection of essays he wrote in the last quarter of the 20th century which have been recently published under the title The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth.

Jon Gregerson's book, in contrast, is a half century older. But, in yet another example of the contemporary convergence of science and religion, a new paperback edition was published just three years ago. Its title is The Transfigured Cosmos.

To me, that title is a wonderful summary of Berry's "new mode of religious understanding." It's saying that when we recover reverence, our world is transfigured.

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.